“Better to serve the Egyptians, than die in the wilderness.” — Exodus 14: 10-31
The Israelites are finally on their way out of Egypt. A series of spectacular plagues have convinced Pharaoh that he is on the wrong side of history, and Jacob’s children are free at last, to cross the border and head to the Promised Land. Happy ending.
But not so fast: here come the chariots of Egypt, in hot pursuit. Pharaoh isn’t going to let them go so easily. The people try to flee, but they find that their escape is blocked by a body of water, an impassable obstacle.
And there they are. Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.
In that moment of terror, the Israelites begin to doubt their path, to question their decision to leave. “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness?” they ask Moses. “What have you done to us? Is this not the very thing we told you would happen, when we said,’Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to live in servitude than to die in the wilderness?'”
I know there are reform-minded preachers who like to refer to this story when they want to talk their congregations into adopting some sort of change. They heap scorn upon the Israelites for their lack of courage, for their eagerness to return to their old way of life. They warn their parishioners against a “back-to-Egypt mentality.” As if keeping an old hymnal was somehow comparable to enduring slavery. Or adopting a new order of worship was somehow comparable to death by drowning.
To turn this text into a convenient parable about tradition vs. change is to miss what was really at stake here. Those people standing on the shore of the Red Sea were wondering whether freedom and dignity were worth dying for. Wondering, which was better: to endure oppression, or to die resisting it? Those of us who have never had to face such a choice are perhaps in no position to judge those of us who have.
Back in February, NFL football player Ray Rice was riding in an elevator with his fiancée, when he struck her in the face with his fist, so violently that he knocked her unconscious. The incident was captured by the elevator’s security camera, and the video was eventually released to the public. Rice and his fiancé were married a few weeks after the assault, which has prompted a number of commentators to ask the question: Why did she stay? That question – and the judgment that it sometimes implied – prompted a stream of answers on the social media Twitter, posted by survivors of intimate partner violence.
Over the past week, there have been over 140,000 posts, all linked to the same hashtag: #WhyIStayed. The answers are as complex and varied as the lives they spring from, but some themes appear again and again:
“I was afraid to be homeless. “
“There was no place to go.”
“I had no credit cards, no bank account.”
“I thought he would kill me.”
“No car, no money, and my daughter is here. What am I supposed to do?”
A person in an abusive relationship is often faced with a choice between a dangerously unsafe home and a dangerously uncertain future. What’s more, if she attempts to leave, her partner is liable to respond with greater violence. This is why domestic violence counselors warn victims, Don’t tell your abuser that you plan to leave. Like Pharaoah, he may escalate the violence.
Leaving an oppressive situation is never as easy as just walking away. The Israelites discovered this on the shores of the Red Sea, as Pharaoh’s army thundered toward them. In that desperate moment, they cried out to God. And in that desperate moment, God responded. But God, it should be noted, did not deride the Israelites for their hesitation. Instead, God spoke to Moses: “Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you – lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites can go forward on dry ground.”
God tells Moses that he is to be the means by which God’s deliverance will begin. Moses, you see, has escaped from Egypt before. If you’re a Bible reader, you might remember that Moses, as a younger man, killed an Egyptian overseer who had been beating an Israelite slave. So Moses fled from Egypt, and lived in exile for many years in the land of Midian – beyond the Red Sea. Moses will be the one to lead the Israelites through the wilderness, because he has been through that wilderness before.
I am reminded of that other Moses, Harriet Tubman, who earned her nickname, not because she escaped slavery, but because she returned, again and again, to show her brothers and sisters that it could be done.
I am reminded of Bill W. and all the AA and NA sponsors and mentors, who bear witness each week that there can be life beyond addiction.
I am reminded of all the LGBTQ adults who joined the “It Gets Better Campaign,” filling YouTube with their personal messages of hope and encouragement for bullied teens.
I am reminded of all those posting on Twitter right now, who are also leaving messages about #WhyILeft – messages of encouragement from those who, like Moses, have gone ahead into the wilderness.
“I left to tell my story and save others.”
“I can and I am making it on my own now.”
“Please don’t give up! “
“You are not alone!”
When we flee from Pharaoh, there are rough seas ahead. But this is the difference, between the devil and the deep blue sea: There is something on the other side of the sea. A different life, a new life, the life that God desires for us. The water is wide, but we do not have to make the crossing alone.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they will not overwhelm you.
For I, the LORD, am your God…
You are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you.
(Isaiah 43: 2-4)
(Belchertown United Church of Christ, Sept 14, 2014.)
(photo Liza B. Knapp all rights reserved)